It is sometimes forgotten that Tom Hanks spent the 1980s doing relentless comedy films (such as The Money Pit, Turner & Hooch, The ‘Burbs and Big – all of which are brilliant in their own way.) Then in 1990 he took a more serious role in Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Bonfire Of The Vanities, where he played a Wall Street yuppie that has a public breakdown after keeping the secret of his mistress knocking down a teenager with his car. From this point on in his career (albeit with some exceptions) Hanks has seemed to gravitate towards characters that are alone amongst a crowd of unsympathetic or misunderstanding onlookers.
Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Cast Away, The Terminal, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Green Mile, Saving Private Ryan and arguably even Toy Story all feature Hanks playing a protagonist who is symbolically (or literally) detached or stranded away from the rest of his peers – Captain Phillips is the latest installment of that trend…
Hanks plays the eponymous captain of a freight liner which is set to travel through the Somali Basin as it delivers commercial cargo and international aid to the east coast of Africa. Intercut with the liner preparing to sail, we are introduced to a number of Somali pirates recruiting members to try and capture a ship for ransom. After a number of attempts on the ship, they board and take Philips hostage for 10 million dollars.
The amazing thing about this film is that it is based on a true story (of which the veracity is being somewhat questioned), yet still plays out like a standard action thriller – Die Hard on the ocean. I don’t feel the need to question the events as it’s the movie that I’m interested in, and the narrative is believable enough compared to most action films on offer.
During the kidnapping, the full might of the American military descends on the small lifeboat to negotiate the return of the captain, yet there are moments in the film where Greengrass allows some sympathy with the pirates. In one instance, Philips says, “there’s got to be more than being a fisherman and kidnapping people?” only for the leader of the pirates to offer in return “Maybe in America…maybe in America”. Although there is an obvious emphasis on the heroism of Phillips, there is a vague understanding that this is all that the pirates have in life. The film is a tale of desperation in two ways: the desperate hope held by the American captain and the desperate necessity portrayed by the Somalis.
The final close-ups of Tom Hanks as he is being rescued (spoiler alert!) are amazingly powerful and show why he has become so perfect for these kinds of roles.